I doubt I'm breaking any new territory here when I tell you that a great deal of youth ministry is parent ministry. But I wanted to write about this because no one told me this; it was something I only discovered when I was a youth minister myself.
The truth is that if you aren't able to manage parental anxieties and expectations, you're going to end up in the soup, spending a great deal of time trying to get yourself out of it. (Not that I'm speaking from personal experience or anything.) If parents don't know what's going on or if it doesn't match what they think ought to be going on, you're going to have to spend a lot of your precious time explaining, calming, assuaging, revising, and generally playing catch-up rather than doing what you wanted to do, which is work with the youth.
What's worse, if the conflict between parental expectations and your plans grows too great, guess what gets left behind? Yes, indeed: your beautifully orchestrated plans, classes, programs, and events are the sacrificial lambs. And the chances are high that once they are sacrificed, they will never be resurrected. What's worse is that you might end up being the sacrificial lamb, and that's no good.
I've seen too many youth ministers ignore parent ministry to their detriment, and to the detriment of the work they want to do. What's worse is that when they ignore parent ministry and things get bad, they think this is the fault of the parents. "If only the parents would support me, I'd be able to do great things!" Well, I'm here to tell you parent ministry is part of the job!
By parent ministry, I don't mean that you need to prepare programs that the parents want or spend all your time pleasing them. But there are a few steps you can take to make it more likely that the programs you do prepare for youth will receive parental support.
1) Consult: Before you lay out your program plans as a done deal, run your thoughts past key people, whether it be the rector of the church, the head of your education committee, key volunteers, or particularly active parents. Let them know what issues you want to address through your ministry. Is it building a more cohesive group? Retaining youth through transitions? Creating a more caring community? Deepening their understanding of Scripture? Exploring their faith? (You may also want to take the earlier step of soliciting input from youth or others about what they think needs to happen.) See if those issues, and your thoughts about addressing them, make sense to these key folks. If not, be sure to listen to their thoughts (see step 2). If their recommendations make sense to you, incorporate them. If not, take some time to think about them before coming to a conclusion. It may be that incremental changes are the way to go--or it may be worth coming up with stronger reasons to support your plans.
NOTE: In consultation, although you may be working with people who disagree with you, do your best to choose to consult only with those who have your best interests and the best interests of the ministry at heart. (Sometimes hard to tell, I know.)
2) Anticipate the questions: One of the things your consultants can help you do is reveal what questions people are going to have about your plans. The concerns they bring up are not ones to wave away; they are the same concerns that other people are going to have. When they say things like, "How are we going to afford this? Who is going to supervise? What about that very successful retreat we used to do?", pay attention! They are not doing this to thwart you; they are helping you realize where the sticking points are. Listen to these questions and make sure you have answers! The more you have figured out ahead of time, the easier it's going to be for you.
3) Communicate, communicate, communicate: As a general rule, the more important the communication, the closer to in person it needs to be. If you are going to make a major overhaul of a youth program that affects a lot of people, plan a meeting to be held in person, and then follow it up with an email or letter to summarize what happened. Address the questions that you learned about from your key people, and be prepared to answer other questions that come up. For a parent with particular questions or concerns that were not immediately assuaged, consider your answer and give them a personal call. For less momentous announcements, consider what would be the best channel to reach the right people. Don't forget that communication happens in multiple formats. Do you have posters around the church campus? Columns in the newsletter? Information on the website? A Facebook page? How can you ensure that parents and youth have the information that they need?
4) And keep communicating! Communication is not something you do once and then you're done; it is an ongoing task. It also happens on both a macro and micro level. For example, when I was a parish youth minister, once in August and once in December I'd be sure to distribute a calendar that included the youth events for the next few months. But I didn't depend upon that to ensure people knew what was happening; every week I would send an email to the youth and an entirely separate one to the parents. It was more work in the short run, but a lot easier in the long run. I knew the chances for participation were much better if I didn't simply assume youth would remember and show up--or that they would tell their parents what was in the weekly email.
Finally, 5) Offer opportunities to evaluate the program: As you start a new program, make sure to let parents--and youth--know that they will have a chance to evaluate a program, class, or event after it is over. And then follow up on that. Survey Monkey provides a helpful and free resource to allow people to fill out surveys online, which is often easier than trying to tally paper surveys or gather information in person. One thing that will settle anxiety is when people know at the outset that after a certain trial period, whatever change has been made will be reviewed and evaluated--and that their input will be taken into consideration.
It's important to remember that parents are part of youth ministry, too. Their lives are affected by what programs and plans you put in place. It is part of your call and ministry that the love you show to the youth in your care extend to their parents as well.